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Atlas V Rocket Blasts Off From Vandenberg Air Force Base

Rocket carrying secret National Reconnaissance Office payload and CubeSats launches early Thursday morning

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 3 at 5:49 a.m. PDT Thursday at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 3 at 5:49 a.m. PDT Thursday at Vandenberg Air Force Base.   (United Launch Alliance photo)

An Atlas V rocket filled with top-secret spacecraft and a baker’s dozen of CubeSats departed Vandenberg Air Force Base early Thursday as spectators staked out viewing spots around the Central Coast. 

Standing some 19 stories high, the United Launch Alliance rocket rose above Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base at 5:49 a.m., with the flight remaining visible for several minutes.

Spectators — adults, children and dogs — lined up along Highway 1 near Santa Lucia Canyon Road, at the edge of Vandenberg Villag, in a Lompoc parking lot and at other locales to catch a glimpse of rocket's blastoff.

The rocket carried a National Reconnaissance Office payload along with 13 CubeSats designed to test assorted technologies for the NRO and NASA.

Later Thursday, NRO officials called the launch successful.

“This launch adds another powerful mechanism to the nation’s security toolkit. It also demonstrates the efficiencies of CubeSat rideshare on an NRO mission. This mission is a great example of how NRO, NASA, the Air Force, and our academic colleagues collaborate to amplify innovative technology to support the nation,” said Air Force Col. Clint Hunt, director, of the NRO Office of Space Launch.

Officials also noted the collaborative effort involving the NRO, Air Force and ULA.

“Launches like this only happen with exceptional teamwork by an extremely talented team and a one-launch-at-a-time focus on mission success,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.  

In addition to the primary payload, the Atlas V rocket also delivered 13 Government Rideshare Advanced Concepts Experiment (GRACE) CubeSats to orbit. The nine NRO-sponsored CubeSats and four NASA-sponsored CubeSats were mounted to a special carrier located on the back end of the Centaur upper stage.

“The GRACE CubeSats will perform missions demonstrating tracking technologies, software-defined radio communications and will also conduct other measurements and experiments,” said Sponnick. “We are happy that ULA could play a part in bringing these nano-satellites to orbit along with the NRO payload through a cost-effective rideshare.”

This is ULA’s 10th launch in 2015 and the 101st successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006. 

The next NRO mission is scheduled for early 2016, also from Vandenberg. The payload will fly on a Delta 4 rocket from Space Launch Complex-6 on South Base.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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